NASCAR: New crew chief, new optimism for Jamie McMurray in 2015

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One of the standout drivers in the second half of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was Jamie McMurray, who although he failed to win a points-paying race and missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup was consistently the biggest thorn in the Chasers’ side down the road.

McMurray, in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, ended 18th in the 2014 standings – one spot behind rookie teammate Kyle Larson – still won the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte and secured seven top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in the season.

After a winless year, it seems quite possible that McMurray could return to victory lane in 2015.

He’ll attempt to do so with new crew chief Matt McCall, who takes the reins from Keith Rodden. This will be McMurray’s third crew chief in as many years.

“I’m super stoked about Matt,” McMurray told MotorSportsTalk at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test last week. “He’s from the same mold that Paul Wolfe and Rodney Childers came from, where he had a driving career, peaked at that, and became crew chiefs. They do as good a job as anyone.

“From Matt’s background, he’s done a really nice job at the shop with his people skills. That’s half the job of being a crew chief, is dealing with and managing the people. I’m anxious to get to track and work with him.”

McMurray, like others, has to adapt to NASCAR’s testing ban for 2015, where only series or Goodyear tire tests are occurring. He related how big of a challenge that will be, especially considering Daytona will mark his first time working with McCall at the track.

“What’s weird is that no one ever wanted to go test, but now we can’t, and you wish you could!” McMurray explained. “It’s also a bit of a challenge for people in my position, where you haven’t worked with your crew chief. You need to learn each other, emotions, your goods and bads. We won’t have that until the Sprint Unlimited and the 150s. It would be nice to have the time before hand.”

As for the car changes coming this year, primarily in the horsepower reduction department, McMurray downplayed it and said it’s more a storyline for the media than an actual issue heading into the year.

“It won’t be too much different… it will be a good way for media to have a good story, about who adapts best to new rules package,” McMurray said. “But the people that adapt the best are the teams that do a good job getting the cars ready to go to track.

“The power side will be the bigger discrepancy,” he added. “Like every year past, there’s gonna be one engine builder ahead of everyone else. Hendrick has been amazing the last few years. I hope that they’re still on top of that. There may be a bigger discrepancy being lower horsepower than there used to be.”

Lastly McMurray gets to shake the cobwebs off – a bit – this weekend at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll share the No. 02 Chip Ganassi Racing Riley-Ford with Larson (who himself has been busy this month) and two of Ganassi’s IndyCar drivers, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan.

“It’s probably one of the best perks of driving for Chip is being a part of this event,” he said. “You’re part of a car that can win every year.”

Eli Tomac’s near-perfect season ended perfectly

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From the start, Eli Tomac wanted to go into the season-ending race at Ironman Raceway with the 2020 red plate already in his possession. That final race has been know to devolve into muddy conditions and it is best not to leave things to chance.

For a rider with an almost perfect record of overall podium finishes, one would not have thought there would be much drama at the end of Round 11 at Budds Creek, but it took until the last lap of the final moto for Tomac to achieve his goal.

One reason was that Tomac’s near-perfect season was not so perfect. From the very beginning at Hangtown, Tomac struggled with poor starts to his events. Getting a bad jump out of the gate and finishing fourth in Moto 1 that weekend was not the auspicious beginning he wanted in search of his third consecutive 450 outdoor championship.

The hallmark of Tomac’s season has been overcoming bad starts. He rode through the field at Hangtown and nearly stood on the podium. Then he won Moto 2 and finished second overall. It was his first of nine consecutive overall podiums. Tomac came back the following week for a perfect sweep at Pala.

In Round 3, Tomac once again got off to a bad start. He finished fifth in Moto 1 at Thunder Valley – and then won Moto 2 in a duplication of his opening round.

In Round 5, Tomac had his worst performance until that time. He finished seventh in Moto 1. Nearly halfway through the season, a pattern was firmly established with his Moto 2 win.

Vanessa O’Brien, Kawasaki USA

One should recall that the hallmark of Tomac’s season was strong finishes. Four the next four weeks Tomac failed to podium only one time in a moto. On that occasion, he would stumble in Moto 2 at Spring Creek in Round 8 before scoring his second perfect race at Washougal.

And that is where it got interesting. Tomac left Washougal with a 50-point advantage over Marvin Musquin. It was just the scenario Tomac had seesawed his way through the season to achieve. But it was too good to be true.

In most of his previous bad performances, there was an extenuating circumstance for Tomac’s bad start: a fall or an off course excursion. This time, he simply rode an uninspired race and finished seventh again to match his worst single moto performance. He could not fully rebound in Moto 2 and finished third.

For the first time in 2019, Tomac failed to stand on the overall podium in fourth. Worse still, he lost 10 points to Musquin and no longer had his one-race cushion.

But this is a season of recovery for Tomac. At Budds Creek last week it was reported that Tomac’s lackluster performance in Washington was due to his overdoing his chores on his Colorado ranch. Rested and restored, Tomac scored his third perfect race with Moto 1 & 2 wins. And this time, he looked sharper than he had in any previous race.

Tomac did all the could do by winning both motos, but in the closing laps at Budds Creek he needed a little help to clinch the title. As it turned out, Tomac needed the perfect performance to clinch his third consecutive championship.

In Moto 1, he narrowly edged Ken Roczen and Musquin, to give the three championship contenders a sweep of the top three spots; that was not enough to regain his cushion.

Roczen was close enough to force Tomac into The Ironman needing to score points to permanently affix the red plate on his Kawasaki in 2020, but just as Tomac’s season has been marked by second half improvements, Roczen’s has been marred by a lack of performance in the second motos.

Musquin passed Roczen late in Moto 2 last week and could have extended the drama one more week if he could have caught second-place Jason Anderson. Musquin could not erase an 11-second deficit to the runner-up and now Tomac’s almost perfect season has a distinctly perfect feel to it.

Vanessa O’Brien, Kawasaki USA

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